Bozalek, Vivienne (2017). 'Agency, well-being and Justice: Diffracting feminist new materialist and human capability ethics' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Cape Town 2017.


What new and creative ways of thinking about agency, well-being and justice may be produced by diffracting a relational ontology such as feminist new materialism with human capability ethics?  This paper will explore the new insights that emanate from putting into conversation new feminist materialist ethics with human capability ethics.

What is a diffractive reading and how does it differ from critique?

This paper uses a diffractive methodology to read feminist new materialist ethics through human capability ethics in order to create new provocations and creative ways of thinking about ethics. Why foreground diffraction rather than critique when considering a feminist new material and human capability ethics? Latour (2004), for example, maintains that critique has run out of steam.  

According to Barad, critique may in some instances be epistemologically damaging, as it is pitting one idea/theory/text/oeuvre against another, and in some cases distancing, othering and putting others down (Juelskjaer and Schwennesen 2012). A diffractive methodology in contrast, does not set up one text against another but is rather a detailed, attentive and care-full reading the ideas of one through another, leading to more generative ‘inventive and generative provocations’ and the possibility of transdisciplinary intra-actions (Dolphijn and van der Tuin 2012).  Thus diffraction is an affirmative practice of reading one approach through another– in this case feminist new materialist ethics through human capability ethics, coming to new insights which can be valuable for both.

Ontological considerations and agency

Feminist new materialism is based on a relational ontology which holds that individuals or entities do not pre-exist relationships – in other words – they come into being through relationships, and are entangled with each other. The human capabilities approach, on the other hand, is derived from an individualist perspective which foregrounds the importance of each individual in their own right. The approach is one that treats each and every person as a worthy human being, as an end rather than a means to an end, and as a source of agency (Nussbaum 2000).  A feminist new materialist agency is not located in human individuals but in enactments between both human and non-human entities – enactments are seen as congealed agency. It is a performative view of the world.

Well-being and flourishing

How do these approaches view flourishing? The human capabilities approach focuses specifically on human flourishing whereas feminist new materialist approaches foreground living and dying well and include the world in the notion of flourishing. In feminist new materialisms flourishing is about a becoming-with rather than a becoming.  It is about response-ability – rendering each other capable, building something better together. It is about species interdependence (Haraway, 2016). Sympoiesis or making things together are important in feminist new materialist ethics.  In human capabilities ethics, the good life, according to Sen (1984; 2001) and Nussbaum (1995; 2000) is the ability of each individual to do valuable things and achieve valuable states, as well as being able to choose from different livings and meaningful affiliations, and not to be constrained into a particular form of life.  The human capabilities approach offers a way of taking into account where people are positioned and what they are able to do with personal, material and social resources, rather than merely looking at what resources people have and assuming that people are equally placed in relation to these resources. Resources in themselves are thus not a meaningful way of assessing human well-being. Without considering the particularity of who needs the resources and in what context these resources are needed, it is difficult to assess how effective the resources will be in allowing individuals to flourish. The focus from a human capabilities approach is therefore very much on the human as the central figure of concern rather than materiality or the environment or an assemblage of human and the environment. Feminist new materialism is a monist view of the world which sees matter or the material has agentive and having a vital force.

 Both approaches eschew a god’s eye universalist view of the world focusing instead on particularities – in the case of the human capabilities the particularities of a person’s circumstances in relation to resources available and the person’s consequent abilities to choose to live a good life.  A feminist new materialist approach assists us to understand that we are part of the world and that we cannot extricate ourselves from responsibility. This means that there are no innocent positions in the world and that we are all complicit in whatever happens. It is impossible to distance oneself from a world in which one is part.


Haraway uses the concept becoming-with as the way in which ‘[o]ntologically heterogeneous partners become who and what they are in material-semiotic worlding’ (Haraway 2016, p.12-13) and are rendered capable through each other. Both approaches acknowledge the importance of difference in terms of social markers. A new feminist materialist approach would see difference as affirmative and desirable, and a human capabilities approach also takes the particularities of people’s circumstances into account when considering valuable beings and doings of humans. Feminist new materialism in its vitalist and monist view of the world deriving from Spinozist ideas also considers what a body can be and do in terms of affect.  Massumi (2015), for example, uses a Spinozist view of affect which means what a body is able to do. Affect is neither subjective or objective, it is both enabling and constraining and is felt as this. Affect is also similar to Deleuze and Guattari’s (1987) notion of the virtual which refers not what is actually there but it is the potential that is there. This is similar to the notion of capabilities That which is regarded as good from a feminist new materialist perspective is that which brings maximum potential and connection to the situation (this is what is meant by becoming) -  this is similar to a capabilities perspective.  The difference here though is that ethics happens between people, rather than inside them, and is pragmatic and situational (Massumi 2015).

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